BEGINNING IN 1593, Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), the earl of Tyrone, a man of whom it was said could speak Irish like an Irishman and English like a gentleman, led a long and sustained uprising that, for a time at least, had the English terrified. Called both the Nine Years War and Tyrone’s rebellion, it began with O’Neill—who as a boy after his father’s assassination during an O’Neill family squabble received what he later called his “education amongst the English”—pretending to be an English ally while secretly directing the uprising. (In Brian Friel’s play about O’Neill, Making History, Hugh is depicted as having gone to England to be schooled, but the earl’s comment probably meant that he received his education within the English Pale in Dublin.) His chief deputy was Hugh O’Donnell (1572-1602) of Donegal, whose family had been the traditional enemy of the O’Neills for centuries. The earl dropped all pretenses in 1595 with his open attack on a fort on the Blackwater River just north of Armagh and was promptly outlawed as a traitor by Queen Elizabeth’s government.

O’Neill’s rebellion proved to be the most complex military campaign in Ireland since the Bruces’s invasion in the fourteenth century, and it remained successful for as long as it remained a guerrilla operation. On the Irish side were O’Neills, O’Donnells, and members of other northern families as well as a number of “redshank” mercenaries hired in Scotland. About a third of them had firearms, although they had almost no artillery, which made attacks on walled cities nearly impossible. Most of the English forces were seasoned troops who had battle experience fighting on the continent.

Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone.

For the first time, religion played an important role in an Irish war. When Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII (who had named Hugh’s grandfather Earl of Tyrone), broke with Rome, he made the struggle in Ireland not only a conflict between the Irish and the English but between Catholics and Protestants. Besides perfecting the art of the military ambush, O’Neill also honed the art of diplomacy, constantly dangling peace proposals before the English as a delaying tactic. He hoped, if he waited long enough, to win the support of the so-called Old English (long established English settlers who were Catholics) and to establish a military alliance with England’s most powerful European enemy, Spain. As a Catholic prince, a descendant of the high kings of Ireland, O’Neill looked for help from His Most Catholic Majesty, King Philip III of Spain.

As with most Irish conflicts, the family connections were intertwined. Hugh O’Donnell was Hugh O’Neill’s son-in-law (a long-established way of binding together two former adversaries), but O’Neill was also married to the sister of Sir Henry Bagenal, marshal of Ireland, the general Hugh’s forces defeated—and killed—at the battle at Yellow Ford.

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